If I had been asked just a few weeks ago for recommendations for good Pacific Islander food here in Jax, I probably would have struggled to come up with a good suggestion. That all changed with a recent trip to Marianas Grinds, a hole-in-the-wall spot at Beach Boulevard and St. John’s Bluff. Marianas Grinds specializes in authentic Pacific Islander cuisine and proudly pays homage to their Chamorro heritage in a very tasty way. They started out as a vendor at the Beach Boulevard Flea Market, and after many years have finally moved to a brick-and-mortar location.
We were impressed right away by how open and bright the space is. Light wood paneling adds warmth, and serves as a backdrop for colorful island décor. Latte stone sculptures grace the counter, island maps line the walls, and the friendly Chamorro greeting “Hafa Adai” is emblazoned on every available surface. And that friendly island vibe didn’t stop with the décor. We were greeted before we had even walked completely through the doorway, and were told we could pick whichever table we preferred.
Our server, who also happens to be one of the owners, brought over menus and a small chalkboard showing the day’s specials. We ordered drinks and took a few minutes to decide on food. Everything, and I mean everything, sounded amazing. And the prices are so incredibly affordable – entrées range from $6.75 to a little over $10 for some of the specials. It was tricky narrowing down what we wanted, so we picked several appetizers to get us started. The menu at Marianas Grinds has a wide array of dishes that are popular in the Mariana Islands, which include Saipan, Rota, Tinian, and of course Guam. The culture’s Chamorro style cuisine has strong Spanish and Filipino influences, blended beautifully with more familiar American flavors. We were excited to try this eclectic cuisine, which is not widely available here in Jacksonville.
We started with lumpia ($1.00 each). Lumpia is one of those foods I just can’t say no to, and this lumpia was no different. Both the beef and the chicken lumpia were stuffed with veggies and rich meaty filling. The paper-thin fried wrappers were crispy and golden brown. These were some very tasty lumpia, but I did find them to be a little greasier than other lumpia I’ve had. It didn’t affect the taste at all (we still devoured both of them), but it did make them a little messy to eat.
The Chamorro style empanada ($1.50) was another must-have. These island style empanadas feature a flavorful rice and ground chicken filling, encased in a deep orange-hued fried cornmeal shell. The texture was interesting and satisfying, and was quite a bit different than typical flour-based empanada dough. It was a real treat.
My favorite appetizer was the Spam Musuai ($2.75). And it was all mine. Since the hubby is not a fan of Spam, I didn’t have to share, which made me a very happy girl. Spam Musubi is a popular snack both in the Mariana Islands and in Hawaii, so it makes sense that it would show up on the menu at Marianas Grinds. It is served warm, wrapped in saran wrap to hold in all the flavors. Unwrapping it was like opening a gift on Christmas morning…I just couldn’t help but smile and I couldn’t wait to dig in. A rectangle of sushi rice serves as the base and is topped with a slice of teriyaki marinated Spam, with a thin layer of egg sandwiched in between. It is all wrapped up with a strip of nori. The musubi is served with a dipping sauce of soy, lemon, onion, and spices that packs a lot of flavor and heat. The citrus and spice of the sauce was the perfect complement to the saltiness of the Spam.
For our entrées, we chose dishes from the selection of daily specials. My hubby zeroed right in on the Deep Fried Tacos ($8.99), because tacos. I went with the Island-style Ramen. The tacos were great. The crispy fried taco shells were filled with spiced ground beef, lettuce, tomatoes, and about a million jalapenos (maybe ask for those on the side). There was also a creamy, spicy sauce to drizzle over the top. Everything was flavorful and fresh. And thanks to the jalapenos and the sauce, there was a good bit of heat to this dish. Thankfully, it came with a side of Macaroni Salad, which served as a nice cool counterpart to all that heat. The macaroni salad was surprisingly tasty. Often a side dish like that can seem like an afterthought and doesn’t really deliver when it comes to flavor. That was not the case here. The salad is loaded with chicken, onion, carrot and celery, all seasoned really well on their own. The light, creamy dressing adds even more flavor and the small ditalini noodles are a nice change of pace from the elbow macaroni found in typical macaroni salads. This is not your average macaroni salad…consider this a must-try dish when you visit Marianas Grinds.
The dish that really blew us away was the Island Style Ramen (around $10). It was beautiful sight to behold – about a ½ gallon (that may be a slight exaggeration) of steaming hot ramen in a lovely floral bowl. Bright green scallions and fluorescent red pickled ginger accented the rich broth, while cubes of salty Spam mingled with the perfectly cooked noodles. This was an amazing bowl of deliciousness. The broth was complex with layers of rich, savory flavors, all of which were accented and brightened by the tang of the pickled ginger. I just kept eating and eating and eating – it was too tasty to stop. I must have said “Ok, I’m done” and pushed the bowl away about a half dozen times, only to pick up my spoon and dig back in for more. When I finally put down the spoon for good, I was stuffed…and it was totally worth it.
To end such a delicious and playful meal, we just had to indulge in some island style dessert. After careful consideration, we went with the Malasada (around $3.50). These Chamorro donuts were crispy and golden brown on the outside, and soft and fluffy inside. They were served warm, dusted with cinnamon sugar, and set atop two scoops of vanilla bean ice cream. It was a simple, yet completely satisfying dessert, proving that no matter what the cultural background, you can’t go wrong with donuts.
We could not have been more pleased with our meal at Marianas Grinds. From the moment we stepped in until we walked out stuffed and beaming from ear to ear, we were taken care of as if we were family. The food was amazing, unique, and a heck of deal (our total bill came to around $35). The atmosphere was delightfully laid-back and no-fuss (think disposable plates and cutlery). But really the service was what won us over and will keep us coming back. It was easily some of the best service we’ve experienced in town. Our server was eager to explain each dish as she brought it over. They were happy to accommodate and asked if we preferred to have certain stronger-flavored ingredients (pickled ginger, jalapenos, etc) served on the side. We were checked on regularly and even the chef (also one of the owners) came out and chatted with us to make sure we were enjoying our meal. He asked specifically if I liked the ramen and the huge grin that spread across his face when I told him I loved it told the whole story – these are good folks who just want to make good food and take the best care of their customers. They are obviously proud of their culture and are eager to share their Chamorro heritage and welcome you to their table. Please do not pass up the opportunity to check out this incredible hidden gem. You will be treated like family, you will leave fat and happy, and you will most likely hear that friendly “Hafa Adai” greeting on your way out.
For this review we welcome a member of the JRR family: Rhonda Kovar grew up in the heart of North Carolina before moving to Florida after getting hitched in 2002. She is a graduate of Lenoir-Rhyne University and a lover of all things crafty, musical, or edible. Rhonda loves finding new and delicious ways to turn her two tiny picky eaters into future foodies. You can follow her on Instagram.